The research was conducted over a three-month period between January and April of 2014. The project began with a review of the literature, which aimed to understand the context for the changes introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012, and subsequent amendments made by the Scottish Government – Welfare Reform (Further Provision) (Scotland) Act 2012. Following this, 17 interviews were conducted with 5 organisations from across the care and support sector. The results of these interviews form the basis for our investigations into how the reforms are impacting on the social services workforce.
Understanding the context of welfare reform
A number of research questions were devised in order to identify the key issues affecting the social services workforce, recognising that this is an emergent area and that there will be gaps in the evidence. The questions reflect the aims and objectives of the research project in terms of uncovering how welfare reform is impacting on frontline staff in the social services workforce.
- How are social services practitioners – particularly voluntary sector care and support providers – in Scotland being impacted by the reforms to welfare?
- What other evidence can we use to predict the impact of welfare reform on social service providers given the limited evidence?
- What do we know about the response from service providers to the impact of welfare reform on organisational and staffing issues?
The project focussed on, though was not limited to, four main areas of concern for the social services workforce:
- Increased demand for services
- Precarious financial environment
- Changes to organisational structure
- Impact on staff roles, wellbeing and morale
- One of the key findings of the research was that participants were experiencing an increased amount of anxiety and stress. The accounts shared by some of the research participants demonstrated that there was a level of apprehension and trepidation, which can be attributed to the changing demands on the workforce in the face of growing financial pressure on vulnerable individuals and families relying on welfare benefits.
- Another pressing concern is that of increased service demand, and the problems that might arise particularly as welfare reform change the nature of support needed. There is a concern that workers are asked to perform tasks outside of their original training. Among the concerns expressed by participants, it became clear that there was a commonality between the responses with regards to increasing workloads.
- One of the other recurring themes during the interview process was the issue of recruitment and workplace turnover and organisational restructure. The subject of pay, and eroding terms and conditions, united research participants; there was unease with regards to how organisational restructures could affect their working conditions. At a personal level some participants expressed concern as recipients of in-work benefits.
- Another issue is that of gaps in service provision, which has been linked in part to the substantial reduction in funding for certain care and support services. Several research participants reported that, as a result of the reforms, organisations were making partial or substantial changes to their services – such as changes to the delivery of services and general capacity.
- When asked about their experiences of accessing services outside of their own organisation, participants shared a concern that the quality of support from government services, such as the DWP and Job Centre, was inadequate. The commonality between the testimonies reflects a broader dissatisfaction with the provision of government services.
- It became clear during the research process that a number of participants were concerned about the quality of training available with regards to welfare reform. They also expressed concerns with regards to the quantity and quality of information available on the reforms, which, in their view, hampered their ability to relay and disseminate accurate information to clients and service users – for example: a lack of clarity in the information shared by the DWP.
As part of the project, we invited people that work across the voluntary care and support sector to discuss the interim research results. We were keen to involve organisations in discussions on the issues of welfare reform, and to ask them to contribute their experiences and reflect on the outcomes of the research. The outcomes of the discussion groups, which workshop participants contributed to, will help inform the overall recommendations of the forthcoming report.
We asked delegates to consider the following three questions:
- What is the sector doing well in its response to welfare reform?
- What could the sector be doing better?
- What actions and/or recommendations follow?
We asked the delegates to write their comments and discuss within the workshop groups. We’ve recorded their responses and have distilled them here for further reflection and action.
What is the sector doing well?
From delegate’s responses, it is clear that the sector has been responding well in many respects as the impacts of welfare reform are being felt. Commonly, amongst the responses, there was a sense that the sector was good at adapting and building resilience. It was also clear that the level of care and commitment had not changed during the rollout of the reforms, and staff would still go beyond their job description to help their clients. Delegates also noted that the sector had remained flexible and was open to collaboration in order to concentrate efforts.
What could it be doing better?
We were interested to hear the views of delegates on what the sector could do to improve its work with clients, service users and the public. There was a clear message that staff should be provided more emotional support, especially when dealing with clients in complex situations. It was a deficit of support that means the workforce has to deal with higher levels of stress, which in turn is leading to high turnover.
There was also a clear message that frontline staff could be confused and overwhelmed by the excess of information – which is often incorrect. It was noted, however, that as the information from the DWP on welfare reform was constantly changing, and as a result, organisations constantly had to update their training, which was leading to immense frustration.
As well as the DWP improving the delivery of information, organisations should also be prepared to take steps to ensure that the workforce is well informed of the changes to welfare. Delegates were also clear that staff training should improve with regards to signposting clients and service users to access the right information. Some of the workshop groups suggested that there should be a free, reliable and accurate single access route for advice.
Another issue that united delegates was that of cutting down on bureaucracy and spending money more effectively. This would help, in their view, streamline the delivery of care and support, and also help to improve the quality of care.
What actions and/or recommendations follow?
Finally, we were keen to have the recommendations of the workforce on what steps should be taken to tackle the impacts of welfare reform.
Of the recommendations, the issue of training was considered the most important. Delegates shared concerns that the current levels of training were insufficient. This should, therefore, be a primary point of action for the sector in terms of delivering better care and support outcomes. It was also made clear that everyone working in the sector should act to build partnerships, which would be beneficial for organisations and individuals in building resilience.
Delegates were clear that the sector should bring the current difficulties of work in the voluntary care and support sector to wider attention. During the workshop, delegates brought attention to the fact that there was a particular sense of injustice of the experiences of clients and service users, and that this was being felt in the workforce. It was agreed that work on bringing attention to such injustices should be accompanied by increasing activity with regards to lobbying on the impact of welfare reform. Current campaigning and advocacy should be built upon in order to influence government policy and public attitudes.
One other key recommendation was that the sector should work more closely with government agencies in order to deliver better outcomes for clients and service users. There was a sense that support workers were finding it difficult to help clients when accessing services such as the Job Centre. This was yielding worse outcomes for the workforce and their clients. Delegates also made it clear that the workforce should take action to hold the DWP to account in terms of service standards.
Overwhelmingly, delegates were most unconvinced when it came to dealing with the DWP and government agencies. It was generally agreed that such agencies needed to be more receptive in collaborating with care and support organisations. It was also noted that the DWP in particular needed to improve work on understanding the role of the voluntary sector, and that it should be prepared to accept the judgements of workers in the sector.